Bad Memories Are More Vivid Than Good
Do you remember exactly where you were when you learned of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks? Your answer is probably yes, and researchers are beginning to understand why we remember events that carry negative emotional weight.
In the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Boston College psychologist, Elizabeth Kensinger and colleagues, explain when emotion is likely to reduce our memory inconsistencies.
Her research shows that whether an event is pleasurable or aversive seems to be a critical determinant of the accuracy with which the event is remembered, with negative events being remembered in greater detail than positive ones.
For example, after seeing a man on a street holding a gun, people remember the gun vividly, but they forget the details of the street. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), studies have shown increased cellular activity in emotion-processing regions at the time that a negative event is experienced.
The more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex and the amygdala, two emotion-processing regions of the brain, the more likely an individual is to remember details intrinsically linked to the emotional aspect of the event, such as the exact appearance of the gun.
Kensinger argues that recognizing the effects of negative emotion on memory for detail may, at some point, save our lives by guiding our actions and allowing us to plan for similar future occurrences. “These benefits make sense within an evolutionary framework,” writes Kensinger. “It is logical that attention would be focused on potentially threatening information.”
This line of research has far-reaching implications in understanding autobiographical memory and assessing the validity of eyewitness testimony. Kensinger also believes that this research may end insight into the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
Elizabeth A. Kensinger (2007)
Negative Emotion Enhances Memory Accuracy: Behavioral and Neuroimaging Evidence
Current Directions in Psychological Science 16 (4), 213–218.
ABSTRACT—There have been extensive discussions about whether emotional memories contain more accurate detail than nonemotional memories do, or whether individuals simply believe that they have remembered emotional experiences more accurately. I review evidence that negative emotion enhances not only the subjective vividness of a memory but also the likelihood of remembering some (but not all) event details. I then describe neuroimaging evidence suggesting that engagement of emotion-processing regions (particularly the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex) relates to the encoding and retrieval of details intrinsically linked to negative items.
Psychon Bull Rev. 2006 Oct;13(5):757-63.
When the Red Sox shocked the Yankees: comparing negative and positive memories.
Kensinger EA, Schacter DL.
McGuinn Hall, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467, USA. firstname.lastname@example.org
The present study examined whether positive or negative valence affects the amount of detail remembered about a public event, and whether positive or negative valence alters other memory characteristics (consistency, vividness, and confidence). Memory for the final game of the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees 2004 American League playoff series was assessed in individuals who found the event highly positive, highly negative, or neutral (i.e., Red Sox fans, Yankees fans, and fans of neither team). Valence did not affect the number of personal details recalled, but it did affect memory consistency (greatest for the negative-event group) and memory overconfidence (apparent only in the positive-event group). These results indicate that positive events can be remembered with the same types of distortions that have been shown previously for negative events. Moreover, it appears that, in comparison with negative valence, positive valence sometimes can be associated with decreased memory consistency and increased memory overconfidence.
PMID: 17328369 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]